Italy Friday recorded the most daily deaths of any country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and Spain had its deadliest day, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first major world leader to test positive.
Italy reported 969 new deaths, Spain 769 and France 299 as Europe reeled from a crisis that has put millions at risk around the world and threatened a global economic meltdown.
In other grim milestones, AFP tallies showed a total of 300,000 cases now recorded in Europe with more than 26,000 deaths worldwide, and the United States overtook China as the country with the most infections.
Members of the medical staff in protective suits treat patients suffering from coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in an intensive care unit at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Italy, Friday
Italy showed infection rates continuing a downward trend and Spain said its rate of new infections appeared to be slowing, but other countries were bracing to feel the full impact of the virus's spread.
The World Health Organisation's regional director for Africa warned the continent faced a "dramatic evolution" of the pandemic, as South Africa became the latest nation to start life under lockdown and reported its first Covid-19 deaths.
Johnson, whose country has seen more than 14,000 declared coronavirus cases and 759 deaths, said he had developed mild symptoms over the previous 24 hours and was self-isolating after testing positive.
Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock also tested positive with mild symptoms.
Europe has suffered the brunt of the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks, with millions across the continent on lockdown and the streets of Paris, Rome and Madrid eerily empty.
In France — where nearly 2,000 people have died — the government announced it was extending its stay-at-home order until at least April 15.
While severe, the 299 new deaths it recorded Friday was lower than the 365 reported the previous day.
The death of a 16-year-old girl from the virus has particularly shaken France, and shattered the belief of many young people that they are immune.
Focus was also turning to the United States, where the number of known infections jumped by 18,000 on Friday, reaching more than 97,000 — higher than both China and Italy.
The US also recorded 345 deaths over the past 24 hours, with a total toll of 1,478.
In New York City, health workers are battling a surging toll of dead and infected at the US epicentre of the crisis, including an increasing number of younger patients.
"Now it's 50-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds," said one respiratory therapist at the Jewish Medical Center in Queens.
They "didn't listen about not going out or protecting themselves and washing their hands", he said.
The coronavirus first emerged in China late last year before spreading globally, with more than half a mn declared cases in 183 countries and territories.
Over the last six days, as many new cases have been diagnosed around the world as in the previous 80 days.
Beijing managed to contain its spread with lockdowns and quarantines and its epicentre Wuhan is in the process of easing severe movement restrictions in place for two months.
Three billion people around the world have been told to stay indoors.
Healthcare systems even in the most developed nations are stretched to breaking point and medical workers have been having to make difficult choices.
The WHO's chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the dire lack of protective gear for frontline health workers was one of the most pressing problems in the fight to prevent deaths.
"The chronic global shortage of personal protective equipment is now one of the most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives," he told a virtual news conference in Geneva.